|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2009|
Román Hernández Rises to Lead Hispanic National Bar Association
By Cliff Collins
The ascendance of Román D. Hernández reads like a modern-day Horatio Alger tale, only better.
His is “a fascinating story,” says Mark A. Long, managing partner of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. “He has really, truly lived the American dream in a way that is worthy of a novel.”
Hernández, a shareholder with the firm, became president of the Hispanic National Bar Association in September. The nonprofit organization represents the interests of the more than 100,000 Hispanic attorneys, judges, law professors, legal assistants and law students in the United States and its territories.
Hernández overcame hardscrabble beginnings and rapidly distinguished himself in a number of areas. “He’s kind of like a diamond: The more you pound him, the harder it gets,” says a friend, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Angel Lopez. But overcoming challenges has not hardened Hernández’s outlook, Lopez adds. “He’s a genuinely nice person.”
Friends and associates use the adjectives “dedicated” and “disciplined” to describe him. “He had to be,” concludes Lopez.
An Air Force Officer
Hernández was born in the border town of Weiser, Idaho, the youngest of eight children of a Mexican couple who worked as migrant farm workers in Michigan, Ohio, and eventually in Oregon. He grew up in Ontario, and has lived in the Beaver State all his life.
His father, who eventually retired from Union Pacific Railroad, had no formal education, but taught himself to read and write. “He was the most intelligent man I’ve known,” says Hernández.
Although he admits he did not apply himself in high school, Hernández says his five older sisters encouraged him to go to college. He obtained an ROTC scholarship — which he calls “a godsend” — and attended Oregon State University, where he did well accdemically and obtained a bachelor of science degree.
He then began what became a nearly five-year obligation to the Air Force. “The ROTC allowed me to mature,” he says. “It was a great experience. Once I was in the military, things got even better for me. It gives you a lot of responsibility at a very early age.”
He served as a section commander of a squadron stationed in New Mexico, and through that role, had interactions with the judicial system when service members in his charge committed offenses. He met the first Latino officer he had known, who was a JAG officer, and who became a mentor. He shared his own experiences and encouraged Hernández to go to law school himself.
That friend’s influence, “plus my exposure to the legal system, solidified my interest” in going into the law, says Hernández. After his honorable discharge, he attended Lewis & Clark Law School, where he earned his law degree.
Ultimately, out of the eight-child family in which he was raised, six obtained bachelor’s degrees, three gained master’s degrees, and he took a law degree. He credits his parents: “They did encourage us to work hard and dedicate ourselves to becoming educated.”
Hernández’s first clerkship was with Lane Powell, his second was with Schwabe, and he has been there ever since. “I was looking for a firm that has diverse practice areas. I think law students might think they know what (area of law) they want to go into, but until you get out there, you really don’t know. Little did I know I was surrounding myself with the best group of lawyers in Oregon.”
He decided to focus his practice in the areas of employment law, labor law and business litigation. What he enjoys most is the people. “It’s an interesting type of work,” he says. “I like being able to help them with their problems.”
Assuming the Presidency
Hernández’s first exposure to the Hispanic National Bar Association was while he was at Lewis & Clark, when he competed in an association-sponsored moot court. In Oregon “our bar is not that diverse, but when I was able to travel, I met (Hispanic) lawyers, judges and law students all across the country,” he explains.
He joined the organization, and in 2002 became a regional president, covering five Northwest states. He served five years, and became one of five national program vice presidents. A year ago in September, he was selected president-elect of the association, and was installed this fall as president.
A top priority for him is to ensure that members have the requisite skills needed to compete in the current down economy. He wants to hold CLEs that “will feature our lawyers as speakers,” he says.
Hernández also is pushing to develop what he refers to as “the pipeline issue,” recruiting and developing the next generation of Hispanic attorneys. The association will be holding mock trials in various cities, targeted at high school students.
He wants to reach out to disadvantaged Hispanic youth so they can see that this is a profession toward which they can aspire. “I was 23 when I had my first exposure,” he notes. He wants to reach young people at an earlier age than that, to inspire them to consider the law.
He also is backing a corporate counsel conference, “designed to provide interaction with members and in-house counsel,” to showcase members’ “expertise, and help with developing business opportunities for both groups,” he says. “A lot of companies want to diversify but say it’s hard to find. qualified candidates. Well, I’m going to make it easier for them.”
The appointment of a Hispanic to the United States Supreme Court had been a goal of the association since its founding 37 years ago. “It’s been a dream that’s been realized,” says Hernández.
But “our advocacy in the judicial area does not end with Sonia Sotomayor,” he says. “It will continue.” In September, he met with White House counsel in the West Wing to discuss federal judicial appointments across the country, including a couple of positions in Oregon. He also has visited Capitol Hill. “We advocate for Hispanic appointments to government, including the judiciary,” he says.
Hernández has been active in the community, too. Currently he is beginning a second term as a member of the board of directors of Oregon Health & Science University. He also served on the 2004 transition steering committee for Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and was named to the Portland Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40,” and Oregon Business magazine’s “50 Great Leaders for Oregon.” In addition, the Oregon chapter of the American Jewish Committee named him as the first-ever recipient of its “Emerging Leadership” Award.
Schwabe’s Long says Hernández — the firm’s first Hispanic shareholder — possesses charisma. “He is truly one of a kind. As a firm, we feel totally blessed to have him as a shareholder.”
Lopez says of Hernández, “I have watched him blossom not only as a lawyer, but as a leader in the legal community.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Cliff Collins